It’s fall, and in California that means it’s time for local swordfish--maybe.
Fresh swordfish is available virtually all year from some part of the world or another, but from September through November it’s typically a local catch here (“local” being a somewhat flexible term). Around the end of August in most years, seasonal migration patterns bring good numbers of this big, tasty fish close to the West Coast, where they are pursued by a fleet of boats mostly based in Southern California.
In past years, depending on where the fish decided to show up, they may have been landed anywhere from San Diego to Ilwaco, Wash., making them local in the sense that they arrive here by truck, rather than by air, and are often several days fresher than those brought in from afar.
This year, our local swordfish really are coming from close to home, as new regulations--part of a long-running battle between fishermen and environmentalists--have confined the fishery to Southern and Central California waters. But those same rules may dramatically reduce the quantity of swordfish available and the length of time you will be able to find it.
Broadbill swordfish ( Xiphias gladius ), a single species that constitutes its own genus and family, is found all around the warmer oceans and larger seas of the world. This highly migratory predatory fish especially favors those zones where warm and cold currents meet and mix, conditions favorable to the production of plankton that support the marine food chain.
Some of these famous swordfish grounds lie well offshore, like the Grand Banks of Newfoundland in the north Atlantic (setting of the book and film “The Perfect Storm”) and a broad band of the central Pacific north of Hawaii. Others occur closer to shore, including the southeastern Pacific off Chile and Ecuador and the near-coastal waters of North America from Baja California to Washington. Whereas a severe drop in the North Atlantic swordfish population has led to stricter conservation measures and a highly publicized chef boycott a couple of years ago, the stocks in the North Pacific are generally considered to be strong.
In a typical year, the greatest numbers of swordfish show up first off Southern California and gradually move northward, although they can and do show up anywhere within the zone. Each skipper decides when and where to fish; when the hold is full, he heads for the nearest port to unload. Unfortunately, swordfish share these rich ocean pastures with other creatures, including some species of sea turtles that are protected under the Endangered Species Act. And the methods used to catch swordfish sometimes catch turtles, which may or may not survive the catch-and-release process. Sea turtle preservation and commercial fishing have been on a collision course in many parts of the world in recent years, and the latest battleground is along the California and Oregon coasts.
Commercial fishermen use various methods to take swordfish, from the traditional harpoons of the Mediterranean (transplanted to California by Sicilian fishermen and still used by a few boats here) to various types of nets to the longlines--the most common method worldwide.
Apart from a handful of harpoon boats, which typically bring in about 5% of the catch, virtually all the annual average of 800 metric tons of swordfish caught within 200 miles of the West Coast are taken with drift gillnets, under regulations developed by the California Department of Fish and Game and applied throughout the 200-mile zone off California, Oregon and Washington.
While gillnets are widely banned in other commercial fisheries, the industry says the ones used in the swordfish fishery are quite selective, trapping swordfish, thresher shark and other large open-ocean fish in a very large mesh (typically 18 to 22 inches) that allows smaller fish to swim through unharmed. Acoustic “pingers” attached to the nets warn away dolphins and other marine mammals, and the seasons are closed during gray whale migrations. Other restrictions on net length and “soaking” time (nets are mainly set at night and retrieved at dawn) are all part of a regulatory system designed to minimize interaction with “non-target” species.
But according to a National Marine Fisheries Service survey prompted by a suit by environmentalists, the nets are still a danger to sea turtles. As a result, in late August, the NMFS closed the gillnet fishery north and west of a line running roughly southwest from Point Sur near Monterey for most of the season, until Nov. 15. The revised plan preserves some important near-shore fishing areas along the Central California coast but still virtually eliminates the prime season on some of the most productive fishing grounds.
Under the new rules, gillnet swordfish catches will be limited to south of Monterey or north of Newport, Ore., although some boats may still land their catch in the closed zone for the sake of convenience. The question remains how many boats these more limited fishing grounds can support.
The conflict between environmentalists and fishermen is not limited to California or to gillnets.
Outside the 200-mile limit, and in most of the world’s oceans, the most popular gear for swordfish is longlines. These are horizontal monofilament lines that can be many miles long, with branching lines each holding a baited hook. Because the same baits that attract swordfish can also attract turtles, the longline fishery has also come under attack by environmentalists. In November 1999, responding to a suit, a federal judge in Honolulu effectively shut down the Hawaii-based longline fishery in the north-central Pacific.
This fishery, which had been a major supplier of swordfish and tuna to both island and mainland markets for the last decade, was allowed to reopen this spring but with severe restrictions. The biggest change is a greater minimum depth for lines and hooks, which allows them to catch tuna but keeps them out of the near-surface zone favored by turtles--and by swordfish.
The judge’s ruling only applies to the domestic fleet based in Hawaii. According to the plaintiffs in the Hawaii suit, some boats based in California as well as boats from other nations have continued to fish with longlines in the same international waters.
Nothing in the current rules prevents a California-based longliner (of which there are perhaps a dozen) from fishing outside the 200-mile limit, including the waters north of Hawaii that are closed to Hawaiian boats, and heading back to the mainland to land its catch. Senior biologist Steve Crooke of the DFG Los Alamitos office estimates that about half of the swordfish landed on the West Coast from 1996 through 1999 (the last year for which records are available) were caught outside 200 miles on longlines.
What does this mean for consumers? There will still be some local swordfish, but we can expect the supply to drop off in the next few weeks, as most of the fish seasonally wander north into the no-fishing zone. As that happens, the swordfish market will likely revert to the way it is the rest of the year, when swordfish may come to our markets from just about anywhere in the world.
Like other global commodities, fish follow money, and a lot of the money is here, making it attractive to producers to fly swordfish halfway around the world to California markets. Over the last few months, local distributors have offered fresh swordfish from at least half a dozen countries, including Mexico, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Chile, Brazil, Australia and New Zealand.
There is no obvious way to tell by looking at a piece of swordfish where it comes from and no requirement that retailers or restaurateurs label fish by origin. Some who sell California swordfish proudly label it as such, while others simply sell whatever swordfish they can find that day. If you want to know where it comes from, ask--in better markets you should get an accurate answer.
With its dense, meaty texture and moderate fat content, swordfish is the definitive “steak fish,” one that practically demands to be cooked by dry heat on a grill or under a broiler. Fish cutters typically divide a nearly round cross-section of the fish into four sections or “loins,” then cut the loins across the grain of the meat into steaks.
Because of the tapering shape of the fish, however, it’s impossible to cut steaks that are consistent in weight and thickness. In restaurants, where portion weight is a prime concern, this can lead to some very thin swordfish steaks, especially if they try to maintain the full quarter-round shape. Unfortunately, steaks that thin are hard to cook without drying them out.
For my money, the ideal swordfish steak is 3/4-to 1-inch thick, which allows it to cook through quickly to the perfect medium stage (still slightly pink in the middle) while getting nicely browned on the surface. If it comes to a choice of ideal serving size or ideal thickness for cooking, I’ll go with the thickness. Often this means taking the Porterhouse approach--getting one large steak to serve anywhere from two to four people and “carving” it at the table. (This also takes care of smaller and larger appetites.)
Whatever the thickness of your steak, it’s nice to be able to tell when it is done without cutting it open. The best method I know is the skewer test: While the fish is still raw, insert a thin wooden skewer into the fish and feel the resistance as you cut your way into the meat and the grip as you try to remove it. In a fully cooked piece of fish, the skewer will slide in and out with almost no resistance. The trick is to use it as a probe to catch that point where there is still a little resistance in the center. If it’s 90% done, figure the fish will cook another 10% after it comes off the fire, as the heat from the surface equalizes with the center.
A variation on the skewer test, which works best with a thin metal skewer or a wire cake tester, is to hold the skewer in the center for about five seconds, then withdraw it and immediately touch it to your upper lip; if the tip is quite warm, the fish is done.
Practice both methods and see which works best for you, and you have a way of testing all kinds of fish cooked by various methods.